Random Thought: Mass NASA Spaceflight Externships

I just had a crazy thought this morning, that while probably unworkable–we’d probably all be better-off if 99% of government policy proposals were sent directly to the paper-shredder–might be a way to start extricating NASA from it’s current manned spaceflight morass.

The following ideas were what led me to this thought:

  • With the way our government is structured right now, NASA’s primary customer is not the American people, but Congress. And in spite of any high falutin’ rhetoric about the common good, the reality is that Congresspeople are people just like the rest of us, and tend to see things from the filter of what benefits them most. In the case of NASA, Congresspeople care most about keeping highly paid aerospace professionals working in their districts (and hopefully therefore voting for them). If the shuttle program employed 6 people in a garage, do you really think there would be anywhere near as much passionate interest in “the gap”, and “workforce retention issues”?
  • That said, Congresspeople do have souls. They actually do care at least on some level that NASA is doing something that sounds plausibly useful–it’s just that they want them to be doing that plausibly useful thing while employing thousands of people in Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, California, and Utah.
  • Constellation has a high probability of dieing sometime during this next administration. The only reason why it isn’t dead now is that those Congresspeople are worried about having 10,000 unemployed aerospace professionals deciding to vote for their opponent in the next election for not protecting their jobs. But as technical problems, delays, and cost overruns start adding up (along with the realization that Constellation isn’t going to be protecting most of those jobs), expect to see the knives come out.
  • One of the single biggest costs in any aerospace project is payroll and related overhead. For instance, while I don’t have exact numbers (and wouldn’t be legally able to give them if I did) and even though MSS doesn’t pay anywhere near as much as NASA does, I wouldn’t be surprised if 1/2 to 2/3 of our expenditures to-date have been payroll and related overhead. The typical burdened rate for an aerospace engineer is in the $100-200k/year range.
  • The idea of the Air Force or NASA running paid “externships” (where an employee or contractor of theirs works with some specific company, with NASA or the Air Force paying their salary in exchange for benefiting from the cross-pollination of ideas) has been gaining traction lately.

So, what if we cranked this idea to 11? What if instead of trying to make another multi-billion dollar shuttle-flavored boondoggle, Congress instead directed NASA to offer most of its shuttle workforce as “externs” for industry? Armadillo Aerospace and several of the smaller alt.space companies have demonstrated how much more you can get for a given amount of money if you don’t have to pay your employees. Imagine if, phasing in over a period of a few years, all of the sudden it was possible to get skilled aerospace technicians and engineers, and not have to pay the full burdened cost yourself?

The benefit for Congress would be that those aerospace engineers would still be being employed, but they’d be working on projects that were actually being run more by market-driven companies, and not as much by the whims of an ossified bureaucracy. The goal would be to use this as a way to help promote aerospace development in those aerospace states. The same money would be spent, the same jobs would be protected, but the effort expended would be more aligned with what the market actually determines to be useful. With the availability of much cheaper labor, it would become much easier and cheaper to launch an aerospace startup than it currently is.

The benefit for the rest of us, is that as those former shuttle employees are divided up among a larger number of commercial enterprises, the incentive structure for the Congresspeople will shift more towards promoting the growth of a strong industry, as opposed to running centrally-planned megaprojects. Also, it might be possible to structure the program such that the externs gradually transfer from NASA payrolls to those companies over the course of a few years, freeing up that money for NASA to act more as a customer while also at the same time possibly allowing NASA to be more able to survive the coming fiscal environment. For instance, for the first year or two of the program, maybe NASA is paying for most or all of the salary of a given extern, but after that each year the company has to pick up another 20% of the tab until at some point the extern is no longer a government contractor but a commercial employee.

Now, even if this policy isn’t entirely nuts, the incentives structure will matter a lot. First off, you don’t want to make greybeards so cheap that nobody will hire new college students. One way of doing this would be to require a given company to hire at least one fresh college grad for every extern they get. Also, as some of those externs start retiring, some of the money that was going to their salary could instead be transfered to matching funds for hiring fresh college students. Second off, you don’t want companies using this as a way to lay off their existing workforce and just mooch off of the state. So you setup some rule that as they lay their own people off, they little by little lose access to those externs. I’m not sure how exactly you would determine who is eligible for externs. Maybe some sort of lottery or draft like they do with many professional sports? I’m not sure.

Anyhow, it’s a crazy idea, but I bet you if you took those 10,000 NASA employees, and instead had them working on commercial projects that it would close the gap a lot faster than pouring more money down the Ares-I rathole. Of course, interfering with the market always causes unintended consequences, the only question is would the end result be better or worse than the current status quo.

What do y’all think?

[Update: 11:37am]

One piece of feedback I got back offline was that this idea would look too much like a direct subsidy to ever work. Well, ignoring the fact that congress just passed one of the most pork-o-licious farm subsidy bills ever, I think there are some ways to deal with this concern. I think one way to frame this is as a “privitization” of the NASA manned space transportation industry. In all the debates about workforce retention, NASA and Congress continuously refer to these employees as “national assets”. Well, if they’re national assets, why not transition them over a few years from a 100% government owned and operated asset to one that is mostly commercially owned and operated? Just a thought.

The other thougt would be making sure that all aerospace (and even some non-aerospace) companies have equal access to benefiting from this externship pool. Ie, anyone can become involved, that way it isn’t benefiting one specific aerospace company at the expense of all the others.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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13 Responses to Random Thought: Mass NASA Spaceflight Externships

  1. bytehead says:

    NASA’s primary customer is not the American people, but Congress.

    That is true. And I don’t see that changing it the near future, nor even this century.

    I say this with a decade of being a former civil servant myself. Too much money flows that way.

  2. Derek Cate says:

    At a time the US auto industry is in pain, GM and the others keep giving their worker buyout and early retirement offers. Their whole goal is to reduce long term expenses. Could this be sold as something similar?

  3. gravityloss says:

    This would also tend to replace real permanent jobs at the companies, since it would be cheaper to keep nasa externs…

  4. redneck says:

    Gravityloss reminded me of something possibly relevant.

    Not in personell but in business tactics, this would seem to have a similar result as prison work release. Having worked just one person in this manner, I can see some of the same benefits and problems from the employer point of view.

    The guy I hired was willing to take almost any job at almost any wages to get out of the work release facility. Some of the highly motivated NASA people would probably feel the same way toward fast moving start ups. Some wouldn’t, and they could stay as they would not be assetts at any price.

    The unwilling to rock the boat mentality could be similar. One didn’t want to do anything including disagree that would get him sent back to prison, the others wouldn’t want to go back to a doomed agency. This would be nearly fatal to innovative thinking even if they knew you were wrong based on their personal experience.

    The tax breaks and cheap controlled labor make work release employees very desirable in some industries, at the expense of entry level positions for non criminals. The cheap via subsidy aerospace workers with the control factor of them being tied to a doomed agency could make them more desirable for top down companies that entrepreneurial start ups.

    The externships would be disruptive to a fledgling industry, the question is, of which kind. In the best case it could be like the thousands of aircraft dumped on the market after the world wars, a near freebe creating massive demand and improvement. On the other end it could be like the wars on poverty, drugs, and illiteracy.

    As a counter suggestion, also politically unfeasible. Put an agency termination date of 5-10 years in the future. During the count down to dissolution, any NASA employee that finds another job in his own voting district gets a second paycheck from the agency as a percentage of the time remaining to the end. As the end approaches, the second paychecks get smaller until they disappear. They keep working with high relative pay in the voting district of that congressman through a few more elections.

    Just in fun sorta, I don’t see anything like this happening.

  5. gravityloss says:

    Maybe NASA could rent willing experts for a few weeks/months when they are having a lull in their own activity.

    This could be cool for the people as they would also get good contacts and might transfer for a real job later if they leave NASA. Or the other way round.

    At least over here you can buy research time from the government technical research agency, VTT, and many technology projects have some joint venture parts.

  6. Ken Davidian says:

    Hi John!

    Is your idea any different than the NASA HQ IPP solicitation that went out on May 17 of this year? See http://tinyurl.com/58w5sm (I got the link from NASAWatch) where the press release says “The goal of the Innovation Transfusion project is to increase the flow of new ideas into NASA by increasing connections between NASA employees and outside organizations that are creative leaders in areas that could benefit NASA missions.”

    Just wondering!

    Ken

  7. Anonymous says:

    Bad idea.

    You do not want NASA civil servants working in a commercial start-up. There are some, like Ken, who have the drive to do it, but most civil servants are at NASA because they like that culture.

    When these NASA people go back to NASA after a year, they will be better prepared to have strategies to compete with the commercial sector using government funds. You can imagine how upset your investors in Masten will be when they see NASA issue an SBIR that will fund 20 new competitors to Masten.

    NASA people are not losing their jobs with the Shuttle transition; it is the contractors at United Space Alliance that NASA has always hated (since Dan Goldin helped create USA in the mid-1990’s to lower NASA payroll) who will lose.

    NASA is doing an extremely poor job of spending tax payers money, and it is not neccessarily their fault. The Shuttle transition is an opportunity for NASA, and no one should feel sorry for them, especially when NASA does not execute with their $17 Billion annual budget. Even if ARES I and CEV are successful in 2015, NASA would still probably have inferior capability to the dramatically less funded Russians, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese, US Commercial, and possibly Indian manned spaceflight programs.

  8. Michael Mealling says:

    Ken,
    IMHO, it is, except that I think Jon was thinking on a much larger scale. Jon’s intent is to create a general transfer of the “jobs program” aspect of NASA’s workforce maintenance issues away from “NASA jobs” to “general aerospace engineering jobs”. I think IPP’s program is geared more toward knowledge transfer and partnerships.
    The first time this came up was several years ago when certain parts of NASA’s budget was being increased with no clear idea of what to use the money for. The idea was floated to create something like this Transfusion program. IMHO, its still a good idea regardless of the scale.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Workable and smart in principle, probably too outside the well-worn groove to be politically feasible. What would be more politically feasible would be a pilot program, which would also be less disruptive commercially.

    -Adam Greenwood

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been trying to think of the best way Congress could funnel money to specified districts while still actually accomplishing something. One way might be to create x-prizes that can only be awarded to companies that have y% workforce in certain areas, although this goes far too eliminating the competition aspect that makes x-prizes most attractive.

    -Adam Greenwood

  11. Anonymous says:

    A question I have is what degree of Congressional bloat is related to NASA jobs and to what degree it is jobs with NASA contractors? If the latter, the problem is more difficult to address.

    If the former, here’s something that might be politically feasible, based on some prior comments here.

    1. Cap NASA’s payroll and HR overhead.

    2. Offer to pay any company that hires a NASA transferee the equivalent of that transferee’s full cost to the government (including social security, benefits, etc.) for a period of 2-3 years. Make this money non-taxed.

    3. Make this offer applicable to start-ups of NASA employees (i.e., NASA employees create startup, quit NASA, go to work at the start-up, the govt. pays the start-up).

    4. Do *not* require that the recipient company use the money for salary and salary expenses. If former NASA employees want to work for miminal salaries while using the money to fund their start-up, so be it.

    This proposal would allow a fairly continual churn of the more entrepeneurial employees at NASA.

    -Adam Greenwood

  12. Jon Goff says:

    Adam,
    Unfortunately most of the Shuttle workforce these days is contractors. Probably 12k out of the 15k total. Admittedly, most of those are working for United Space Alliance (a Boeing/LM amalgamation), and I don’t know if they would technically revert back to Boeing or LM once the shuttle is retired.

    ~Jon

  13. Pingback: Random Thought: NASA Externships as an Alternative to “Training-Wheels” Intramural R&D? | Selenian Boondocks

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